Review of Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon

Fair, John D. Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. Pp. xiii+457. Notes, index, bibliography, and appendices. $35.00 clothback.

Reviewed by Hunter M. Hampton

Mr. America by FairI just defended my dissertation, and I am still a little mentally frazzled. This also means that my analytical reading is cranked up to eleven as I am constantly rethinking the questions posed by my committee. Since my dissertation is about the history of muscular Christianity in 20th-century America, I felt John Fair’s Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon would be a great way to refocus my mind as I start turning my dissertation into a book. Realistically, it turned me into every academic author’s worst nightmare: the combative, cocky, critical newly minted Ph.D. I avoided the cheapest of all book review tricks by ranting about how he didn’t talk about my research, but just barely. The one thing I couldn’t avoid was the anger I felt at myself for not reading Fair’s book before I submitted my dissertation.

Fair is no newcomer to bodybuilding either professionally or personally. This project is certainly a continuation of his 1999 book Muscletown USA that charted the history of York Barbell and its founder Bob Hoffman. Personally, he could not be closer to his subject matter. He has competed as a bodybuilder; judged weightlifting and bodybuilding competitions, including the 1973 Mr. America competition; and served on the AAU national weightlifting committee. This close proximity to his subject and sources appears throughout the text, and serves as both the greatest strength and weakness of the book.

Mr. America tackles the difficult task of covering the history of American masculinity over the course of the entire 20th-century. Trust me, I understand the struggle. The tricky thing about a subject of this scope is how to narrow it down to a manageable project. Fair limits his study by focusing exclusively on the Mr. America competition. But like any good historian, the story begins well before the first official naming of America’s ideal man. In fact, he starts at the very beginning with the Greek ideal of masculinity Arete, and traces holistic conception of physical, mental, and spiritual excellence from about 700 BCE to late-19th-century America. This concept serves both as the structure of the book as a Greek tragedy, and his definition of the ideal American man.

From this groundwork, Fair begins charting the early days of the Mr. America competitions. Before the naming of the first Mr. America in 1939, he traces the earliest roots of efforts to find the ideal American man to Bernard McFadden and Eugen Sandow’s creation of the magazine Physical Culture and their 1903 competition to find “The Most Perfectly Developed Man.” McFadden had the winners of the competition pose in loincloths, feathers, and furs for the magazine. This tactic put McFadden in the crosshairs of Anthony Comstock. Physical Culture’s offices were raided in 1905, and he was give a 2-year prison sentence and $2,000 dollar fine. While his jail time was pardoned, he paid the fine. The competition then shifted to a photographic competition with applicants mailing in pictures. Fair contends that “Mcfadden’s aim was to modernize and improve upon the Greeks,” but the reception of a photograph of a scantily clad ten-year-old female muddles the line between pornography and physical culture (p. 27). As the photographic competitions grew in popularity, McFadden hosted a live event in Madison Square Garden in 1921. Charles Atlas won the event and cemented, in Fair’s mind, the proper conception of Mr. America as striving for the Greek ideal. This was challenged with the formalization of weightlifting as an Olympic sport in the interwar years. A new emphasis on practical strength for sport replaced muscles for muscular bodies sake. Unfortunately for the reader, Fair dedicates little analysis to why American men would prize practical strength during the 1920s and 1930s.

The second phase of the Mr. America competition came during World War II to 1970. Fair deems this “The Golden Age” where the “the all-important culture component – a legacy from the Greeks – that had permeated bodybuilding over previous decades and would prove vital to Mr. America’ ongoing existence” (p. 68). Within the first six years of the completion, the battle over the proper definition of the ideal American man became a hotly contested debate. For Fair’s narrative, he sets up two camps. The good guys in this battle royal are those in favor of the Greek ideal, Bob Hoffman and the AAU. The villains are those in favor of big muscle and big money, Ben and Joe Weider. In the 1950s, the issues of racial integration, anabolic steroids, and professionalization began to challenge the Greek ideal. These disputes came to a head in the 1962 Mr. America competition when the winner, Joe Abbenda, controversially beat an African American, Harold Poole, by two points. On top of the apparent racism, Abbenda was probably the first Mr. America to artificially bloat his muscles with steroids. Finally, the Weider brothers continued their push for the Mr. America competition to be a moneymaking show modeled after Miss America. For Fair, the Golden Age of Mr. America ended in 1970. This year Chris Dickerson won the AAU title as a gay black man.

The “Decline and Fall” of both Mr. America and the Greek ideal is the final phase of Fair’s book, and it began with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Despite the worldwide fitness and self-help craze, Arnold’s extreme musculature, brash personality, and seven Mr. Olympia titles marked the beginning of the end for the idealized balance of body, mind, and spirit as qualifications of Mr. America. A second sign of decline came in the character of Ken Sprague. According to Fair, Sprague’s ties to the homosexual pornography industry and creating Gold’s Gym pushed Mr. America away from its original aims. The final nail in Mr. America’s coffin, Fair maintains, was the Weider brothers’ “enthusiasm for hegemony and profit, [that] allowed bodybuilding to become more a spectacle than a sport, and despite all their efforts to make things appear otherwise, it was a pervasion of the Greek ideal” (p. 306). The AAU abandoned the Mr. America competition in 1999.

One of the greatest strengths of Mr. America is its ability to map the shifting definitions of gender and masculinity over the course of the 20th-century. Fair is at his best in his gendered analysis when he compares the cultural dynamics of the Miss America competitions to those of Mr. America. The best example of this is when Fair discusses how Miss America became a beacon of white, middle-class respectability in the 1950s. But at other times, Fair employs Miss America to defend the stance of Mr. America. This appears in the discussion of the racial segregation of both events. While Mr. America allowed African American contestant in 1960, Miss America lagged behind. Fair notes how Morris Anderson, an African America businessman from Philadelphia, created Miss Black America in 1968 to challenge the color line in Miss America competitions. Fair declares, “That no Mr. Black America emerged may be attributed to the multiplicity of bodybuilding organizations in which black men had already made significant inroads” (p. 189). By comparing Mr. and Miss America, Fair does a great job of analyzing the symbiotic relationship between cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity.

Aside from the gender analysis, Mr. America provides deep-cuts analysis of this bodybuilding competition through the print culture surrounding the event. This book is as much a history of the publication of bodybuilding magazines like Strength and Health, Muscular Development, Iron Man, and Muscle Builder – to name only a few – as it is a history of the actual competitions. His archival research at the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports is superb. He does an excellent job of analyzing how the creation of these different magazines marked notable shifts within the bodybuilding community, and how the debates they published about Mr. America shaped the cultural narrative surrounding the event. The downside of his laser focus on the magazines is it limits his ability to tie in larger cultural forces that may or may not have contributed to these same shifts. Fair passes on the opportunity to analyze why several of the earliest Mr. America’s anglicized their names from Steponaitis to Stephan, or how postwar consumption altered the ideal form of American manhood, or why men desired larger muscles in the 1970s and were evermore willing to achieve them despite the risk of taking steroids. Instead, Fair is more interested in noting how American culture fell out of step with the original Greek ideals of Mr. America and not the other way around.

In all, Fair’s Mr. America provides the rare insight into the world of bodybuilding that only an insider could offer. With his proximity, he successfully sketches the characters, conflicts, and champions that contributed to the rise and fall of Mr. America. Any scholar interested in in bodybuilding, masculinity, and print culture will find the book valuable. The greatest tragedy of the book is that he forces the formula of a Greek tragedy on his subject instead of using Mr. America as a barometer to measure the cultural changes in 20th-century America. Rather, he wants to show how Mr. America once “embodied the intrinsic ethos of a burgeoning America, but in the 1960s it took on much of the society’s rejection of traditional values. …its tragic history reflects the erosion of American idealism” (p. 369). Fair admits that he may have been better served by treating Mr. America as a Greek comedy. Considering that most scholars understand Greek comedy as a social satire rooted in conservative values that aim to restore a more traditional order, I agree.

Hunter M. Hampton has his Ph.D. in history from the University of Missouri. His research focuses on religion, sports, and masculinity. He is working on a manuscript on muscular Christianity and the making of 20th-century American Christian manhood. You can follow him on Twitter @hhampton44.

 

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